Can we talk? About breasts?

How did all of us—men but mostly women—get to be so weird about women’s breasts?

About the size, shape, and firmness or sagginess? How did we become so obsessed with the way breasts look and so up-tight about their function, which is simply to nourish an infant? Image from page 147 of "The report of the Philadelphia baby saving show, and the proceedings of the Conference on infant hygiene" (1913)

Take comic Joan Rivers, for example. Joan—who repeatedly asks,”Can we talk?”—has made a whole career of self-deprecatory humor, much of it focused on her breasts.

Apparently, they are not big enough. Big enough for what, I wonder. Basically, breasts of any size (and there is an incredible range to be sure) are big enough to do the job of making milk to feed a baby.

How vertebrates make babies and take care of them

We humans are vertebrates, that is, animals with backbones, like fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. And we’re the most advanced sort of vertebrates. We’re mammals.

As you may recall from biology class or TV nature shows (or maybe your Mom’s earnest explanation of how the birds and the bees make baby birds and bees) the first vertebrates were fish.


A fish’s idea of hot sex is to shed eggs or sperm by the zillions into the water and swim away, leaving the young fish to find food while avoiding becoming food for other fish. (A notable exception is the primitive shark which evolved internal fertilization and the bearing of live young.)


From fish evolved amphibians which hop or slither about on land but head right back to the water to shed eggs and sperm into the water when the time is right.


These more advanced vertebrates have internal fertilization (that is, sex), and the female produces a nutritious egg with a shell to nourish and protect the developing baby.

After she lays her eggs, the female moves on (in the case of sea turtles, back to the sea), leaving the hatchlings to fend for themselves. Some make it. Many don’t.


Birds evolved from reptiles and, like them, lay eggs. Aquatic birds, such as ducks, watch over their batch of ducklings until they’ve grown enough to survive on their own.

Other birds—whose babies are naked and helpess when they hatch—work tirelessly to feed the voracious nestful of young until they can fly and feed themselves.


Also evolved from reptiles, mammals are well equipped to take care of their young. The most primitive mammals have a pouch (or marsupium) to hold the tiny, underdeveloped young as they grow and mammary glands to nourish them.

More advanced mammals have a placenta which allows for a relatively long gestation period and mammary glands to nourish a baby for months or even years.

So human breasts contain mammary glands which make milk. And to do that job, size doesn’t matter! Not at all.

If size doesn’t matter, how can BIGGER be better?

Many women want bigger breasts. It may be that a woman thinks that her boy friend or husband would find her more attractive. Perhaps she’s influenced by advertising or cultural messages or whatever. And we have the technology. Plastic surgery can make breasts bigger or smaller.

But breast enhancement is a bad idea. The reasons are that it’s an unnecessary, costly medical procedure and—like all medical procedures—involves risk. Specifically, infection which is dangerous and movement of the inserts which is weird, especially when the left one heads off in a different direction from the right.

You don’t need to take my word for any of this. Goggle “breast enhancements gone bad” and see for yourself. Preferably before undergoing the procedure.

If it’s risky, why is so popular? Perhaps people don’t know about the risk. Perhaps they have more money than sense. Whatever the case, some parents are giving their teenage daughters breast enhancement surgery for a Sweet 16 or high school graduation. An even weirder variation is mother-daughter plastic surgery, with breast enhancement being a popular choice.

This is so appalling, but it seems almost normal and ordinary compared to Heidi Montag who’s notorious for having 10 plastic surgery procedures, including breast enhancement, in a single day.

Apparently, she later experienced Buyer’s Remorse and wanted to reverse the procedure. Too bad it’s not quite as simple as letting some air out of a tire.

What about breast-feeding a baby in public?

When it comes to using the human breast for its biological function of nursing an infant, the culture seems to go all prim and puritanical. When my children were babies, I nursed them. If we were out in a restaurant, I’d nurse the baby discreetly while eating my dinner.

But now I sometimes see women using a strange cover over the breast and the baby’s head, so that no one will be exposed to the natural sight of a mother nursing her baby.

There are many questions pertaining to nursing a baby in public, but it’s legal, it’s natural, it’s good for the baby, it’s inexpensive, and it’s convenient.

How do you feel about all this? Do you think that we’re obsessed with the size of women’s breasts and strangely put off by their natural function? Does size really matter to men or do women just think that it does? And, finally, how do you feel about unnecessary and costly cosmetic procedures? Are they worth the risk?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 11/04/2010, 4:06 pm

    Our ideas of normalcy are indeed distorted, and, unfortunately, some of the images one see when she Goggles “breast enhancement gone wrong” are anything but normal! Besides the cost, the risk of infection, and the risk of the implants moving around, there is the risk of difficulty or pain in nursing a baby after having breat enhancement. All in all, it’s a very high price to pay.

    I appreciate your comment, Adena.

  • Adena Atkins 11/04/2010, 2:35 pm

    Hi Madeleine,

    Thanks for writing about this. I’m not against people altering their appearance but I think breast implants are pretty silly. I imagine the point of getting them is to feel sexier. But how sexy can one feel risking sensation in such an important area? It makes no sense to me!

    Our ideas of normalcy are so distorted! Thank goodness for independent media such as bloggers like you :)
    .-= Adena Atkins´s last blog ..Alarm Clocks Make Good Friends =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 10/27/2010, 10:30 pm

    People seem to underestimate the risks involved in any kind of surgery. And it makes no sense to take such risks merely to have larger breasts.

    I think that the worst aspect of all, though, is the message to women of all ages, that they’re not good enough the way they are. How despicable to make women feel inadequate so that you can sell them something hat makes them more adequate.

  • Lynne Spreen 10/27/2010, 8:39 pm

    I can understand women making a choice to have implants if they have experienced life-changing impacts on their bodies, either from disease or other difficulties. But to have that kind of surgery just to get the eyeballs – personally (and as a person with several life-saving surgeries behind me), I wouldn’t do it as an elective.
    Thanks for a thoughtful post.